Break 1 – London

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God’s Own Junkyard

London with a Local 

Taking on the city with a 10-year resident, I met up with the brother of one of my mother’s international friends.  We began with the tourist leading the Londoner to God’s Own Junkyard, a garage gallery on the outskirts of the city center home to hundreds of neon signs; if you arrive near the dumpsters of a questionable property, you’re in the right place!  The establishment was small, but impressive.  More than just a lot of light, many of the installments were composed works, a combination of individual, glowing pieces, to create inspiring, innovative, and eyebrow-raising art.

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“It’s always your favorite sins that do you in.”

Though there is a café area in the gallery, my new friend and I did not stay, opting instead for a greater foodie experience closer to town.

 

Camden: the Cosmic Culinary Capital of London

My guide led me to the neighborhood of Camden Town, a funky, alternative area of food and flea market vendors. Our destination was, specifically, the Camden Market, an international smorgasbord bordering Regent’s Canal.  Hosting stalls of every type of cuisine, we settled on splitting a Venezuelan shredded beef and corn bread sandwich and a Greek chicken wrap. The sandwich, from Arepa: Venezuelan Street Kitchen, was one of the best dishes I ate in London.

Next, we ventured into a store that I feel embodies the environment of Camden.  Cyberdog‘s storefront was preceded by a line to get in the door, which was flanked by two, futuristic, human-dog hybrids.  Neon lights, techno music, and cage dancers greet customers, along with the store’s least offensive merchandise. Floors below reveal risqué stock, justifying the “no photography” policy.

After visiting God’s Own Junkyard and this inexplicably bizarre but must-see store, I began to feel that the phrase “only in London” would be an appropriate label for many of my experiences on this trip.

Walking after our lunch, we took the Regent’s Canal Towpath from Camden Town to Primrose Hill in Regent’s Park.  On a clear day, one finds a panoramic look of London, but as typical of viewing experiences of my journey, the city fog took over and obscured the overlook.

 

Lights of London

While visiting a new city, I like to explore the same place during the day and during the night for a different perspective.  Each experience is beautiful in its own way.  I was able to end my third day in London with a return to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye to enjoy these London landmarks illuminated along the River Thames.

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“Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”  ~ Peter Pan

 

Destination Locations

Peace, Love, London

A.J.H.

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Break 1 – London

Here I Come, Hogwarts!

With an entire day ahead of me after a morning of yoga at The Shard, I headed to King’s Cross train station’s Platform 9 3/4 for Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school of magic and wizardry.

A large crowd called attention to the site, complete with a photo-op and gift shop.  The photography center employees were committed to serving tourists an authentic experience, providing wands, Hogwarts scarves, and assistance to make it seem as though one was truly in action running through the platform.  The gift shop was as equally as impressive, complete with Hogwarts school robes and a cabinet of wands.  Though I didn’t wait in the “queue” to take my turn journeying to Hogwarts, I did buy a pack of Every Flavor jelly beans for my future train travels.

 

Today, I am a Tourist

I spent the second half of the day visiting London’s typical tourist sights: Buckingham Palace (where I discovered that, unfortunately, the iconic, red-jacketed guards wear grey in the winter), Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (viewed best from the St. Thomas Hospital Gardens), and the London Eye.  With a good attitude and a good pair of shoes, it’s possible to walk all of these sights in an afternoon.

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Big Ben from the St. Thomas Hospital Gardens

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The London Eye and the Boudiccan Rebellion statue

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Walk it! Click here for directions

Destination Locations

Peace, Love, London

A.J.H

Family Week – April 20, 2016

Paris, Day 2, was even better than the first, combining typical tourist attractions with some special sights.

After passing countless closed cafés on our apparently early, 9 a.m. start, we came across Le Parvis.  Though it was just one of the many eateries on the Rue d’Arcole, it was the only one we found to be open.  Thankful that the restaurant was even going to serve us, we did not expect much from the meal, only craving morning nutrition.  Our breakfast, however, was delicious.  With outstanding omelettes, crispy croissants, and fresh juice, it was one of the best meals of the week.  Fueled with fantastic French food, we began our second day of exploration.

Of the many things I learned in my first years of French instruction, I have inexplicably distinct memories of discussing one of Paris’s grand shopping centers.  Based on my faint ideas and images of a beautiful building housing posh, Parisian products, my family and I set out to investigate my hazy remembrances.

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Combine the luxury of Saks Fifth Avenue with the mesmerizing appeal of stained glass to get the stunning Galeries Lafayette.  Cosmetics counters below and a glass dome above, the 9-story shopper’s paradise is worth a visit, if not for its fancy products or indoor aesthetic, then for its free, rooftop views.  With only a few sets of chairs but ample AstroTurf on which to sit, the terrace of the Galeries Lafayette was littered with lunchtime visitors soaking up the springtime sun and taking in the sights of the Eiffel Tower.  For my family and I, it served as the setting for our Parisian Macaron Matchup.

Macarons, often mistakenly identified as macaroons, have become associated with the French almost as strongly as the croissant has.  When I researched the best macaron shop in Paris, however, I found conflicting opinions. Fellow travelers narrowed the options down to two pastry houses: Pierre Hermé and Ladurée.  With a Pierre Hermé kiosk in the Galeries Lafayette, my mom, aunts, and I thought it a perfect time to try one of the best.

We ordered a cup of six, funky-flavored macarons to split, taste, and analyze.  The first flavor we tried, Imagine, of Matcha green tea and black sesame crisp, was all wrong.  Next was Infiniment Rose, which was much better, a very mild-tasting and pleasant treat.  Third, we tried Mogador, a milk chocolate and passion fruit macaron.  The tart wafers and rich center clashed, so we gave this one a thumbs down.  Fortunately, the citrus wafers and creamy center of Velouté Infiniment Orange tasted like harmonious creamsicle.  Following the orange macaron, we sampled Céleste, a passion fruit, rhubarb, and strawberry concoction, which wasn’t great.  We finished with Infiniment Menthe Fraîche, or mint, which was underwhelming too.  Overall, the sweets were made well, with soft-flavored wafers and tongue-shocking centers, but the flavors weren’t practical or enjoyable.

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After our snack, we set out to see the west side of the city.  On our way through the Place de la Concorde, we came across a Ferris wheel, which was erected to promote the 2016 UEFA European Championship, to be held in France this year.  A ride to the top offered sky-high views of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, our next destinations.

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Walking down the Champs-Élysées, I was surprised at the luxury, scale, and commercial presence on the street.  From what I had interpreted from my classes, this was a street of quaint, albeit inauthentic, cafés and small, overpriced boutiques, not stories-high chain shops.  Nonetheless, the tree-lined route made for a pleasant journey to view the towering Arc de Triomphe.

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Skipping the tourist cafés of the Champs-Élysées, my family and I searched for a snack around the Louvre Museum, the next stop on our Paris agenda.  Settling on La Comédie, I enjoyed my croque madame outdoors, people watching, like a true Parisian.

The grounds of the Louvre were dotted with visitors playing photography games, “pricking” their fingers on the top of the iconic pyramids.  This is where my family and I waited for our museum tour guide, Georgi, who my aunt discovered via Airbnb.  A friendly and knowledgable host, Georgi led us to the highlights of the Louvre, because the museum is impossibly large to tackle without a plan.

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We saw the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (my favorite), and of course, the Mona Lisa.  Georgi shared some of his art history expertise with us, explaining the story of the painting of the Mona Lisa.  Many years ago, an Italian man stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, creating a hype around the missing painting.  According to the story, once he was caught, investigators asked why he chose the Mona Lisa, and he replied that the work of Leonardo da Vinci deserved to be displayed in Italy, and because of its small size, the Mona Lisa was the easiest to steal.  With the excitement of the theft, visitors rushed to see the Mona Lisa upon its return to the Louvre.  The woman’s “mysterious smile” is a popular attribution to its acclaim, but Georgi pointed out that many of the other women in da Vinci’s numerous works portray a similar smirk.  He continued to explain that the Mona Lisa is, essentially, the Kardashian of paintings: beautiful in its own right, but famous for nothing.

Across the room from the little Mona Lisa hangs The Wedding at Cana, a grand painting by Paolo Veronese.  Georgi noted that the dimensions of this painting, about 22-by-32 feet, is generally the size of an average Parisian flat!  On our way out of the museum, we passed by another fun-fact art feature, the “selfie statue.”  Apollo Slaying the Python, the title of the work, clearly explains the act of the Greek god snapping a photo of himself to post on Instagram, #Louvre.

To end our spectacular second day in Paris, we made our way to the Trocadéro Gardens to see the Eiffel Tower illuminated in the Parisian night sky.  Though I was unable to enjoy the park itself, it provided a fantastic and full view of the Eiffel Tower.  Many others knew of the spot, with a street performer and local food trucks complementing the tourist crowds.  Fortunately, we arrived just in time to catch the sparkling lights of the grand tower.  Though there were hordes of people vying for the best angle of the monument, the location offered everyone an exceptional look at the eminent Eiffel Tower.

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Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Paris

A.J.H.

Nice, France

Tout a commencé avec français. 

Incremental exposure to French language and culture sparked my international curiosity and called me to come abroad.  In elementary school, I participated in a lunch-time French club, where I was introduced to the basic words and phrases of a language that seized my attention.  My official French studies began in middle school and have not stopped (aside from this short break in Spain).  Though I’ve adjusted my lingual learning throughout my education, I do not have a passion for the other languages and cultures as I do for French.  University logistics dictated that I study in Madrid before France, so after years of fantasies, studies, and patience, I was beyond eager for the opportunity to visit the country that I had never been to, but that already had my heart.

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The University of Maryland operates a study abroad program in Nice, France, which I intend to take part in next spring.  A friend from one of my French classes is participating in the year-long version of the program and invited me to spend a weekend with her while we were both abroad.  I would be able to preview the city, learn about the program, and have my own personal tour guide in Nice.

 

Bonjour, France!

After getting off of the plane, I stood at the gate for a moment, taking in the ocean views from the Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport.  I was finally in France!  After locating my my friend Olivia, we made our way to her apartment via scenic bus ride, a default privilege whenever one travels along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

For dinner, Olivia brought me to La Claire Fontaine, and we both got pizza.  Though we were in France, she informed me that there were Italian influences in Nice because of its Mediterranean location.  I took the heavy rain that began during dinner as a sign to extend my stay in the restaurant and finish my entire personal pizza pie, one of the best I’ve ever had.  Once the rain slowed, we dashed across the street for dessert.  Continuing Italian influences led us to Fenocchio, a gelato shop that my friend claims is the best in Nice.  I wouldn’t argue with her assessment.  The shop boasted endless flavor options, and my cup of white chocolate gelato was delicious.

As thrilled as I was to have been in France, I was much less enthusiastic to speak.  My French was embarrassing.  Originally eager to finally use French after only practicing Spanish for the last two months, I thought that this trip would be the perfect opportunity to exercise my skills.  All of the confidence that I had developed in my French speaking abilities, however, disappeared when I attempted to talk in Nice.  I could not think of much of what I wanted to say, Spanish slipped out nearly every other word, and the French accent that I had worked so hard to develop was nonexistent.  I know that I can credit this to my immersion in Spain, in addition to a complete lack of use of French, but nonetheless, it was frustrating.  I will do my best to practice my French while in Spain, even if only mentally, with hopes that it will come back to me in French class this fall.

 

Day 2 – Monaco

With so many other destinations accessible from Nice, Olivia brought me to the Principality of Monaco.  A 45-minute bus ride for 1,50€ brought us right into the center of the little land of big boats, fancy cars and people looking to spend money.  Taking in the impeccable grounds, beautiful buildings, and happy visitors relaxing in the sunny, 60-degree weather, I felt like I was in Walt Disney World.  From the landscaping to the sky, the town felt staged.  Everything was perfect, too delightful to be true.

Strolling past green lawns and luxury shops, we arrived at the Casino de Monte-Carlo.  Though I expected more grandeur after all that I’ve heard about the famous gambling hub, it was still a stunning structure.  Even more underwhelming was the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, but the views from the courtyards of the royal residence were impressive.  Upon the same hill as the palace is Princess Grace Kelly’s grave, in the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, along with the other monarchs of Monaco’s past.

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Casino de Monte-Carlo

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Prince’s Palace of Monaco

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Views from the Palace courtyards

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Grace Kelly’s burial site

For me, where Monaco lacked in architectural richness, it made up for in linguistic diversity.  Similar to Nice, but even more so, Italian influences intermingled with French flair.  Though it has been a year since I have studied Italian, after 5 years of study, I was pleased to find that I could still understand some of the language that I saw and heard.  Studying in Nice would allow me to practice my French, as well as some Italian, keeping my language studies well-rounded.

When Olivia and I returned to Nice, we picked up a local snack called socca.  Socca is, essentially, a crêpe made out of chickpea flour.  Though I had never had chickpeas before, the socca tasted just as I imagined.  Served warm with only salt and pepper, it was slightly bland, but tasty.  It is not something I’ll ever be craving, but it was a nice lunchtime snack.

As the day progressed, we decided to pair our salty socca with sweet cupcakes.  Emma’s Cupcakes was luxe yet inviting, and though we could have spent the day in the shop, we took our treats to go. Sitting on the wall of the beachside Promenade, Olivia and I took a break from our miles of walking and enjoyed the sea, the sunshine, and our cupcakes. Similarly to those in Spain, the French cupcakes were not as delicious as I’d hoped. Though the Europeans can deliver delectable, flaky pastries, they are unable to master a squishy, moist cupcake.

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With plans to watch the sunset, Olivia and I walked along the Promenade, stopping on the beach so I could observe the shore of stones, instead of sand.  How does anyone enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice!?

We waited for the sunset at Castle Hill, the highest point in Vieux Nice, or Old Nice.  Unfortunately, weather and natural landscape took away from the overall effect of the experience, but the views of Nice were perfect.

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Funny side note:  While on Castle Hill, Olivia and I were shocked to spot a boy in the ocean!  Despite what the sunny photos may convey, it was chilly and windy, especially near the sea.  He stood in the waves for about 10-15 minutes, seemingly unaffected by the frigid temperatures of the winter water.

On the walk away from the viewpoint, after sunset, we found ourselves behind Crazy Ocean Boy!  Something had to be wrong with him, seeing as he was soaking wet wearing shorts and a T-shirt while his friends were dressed appropriately for the weather.

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Crazy Ocean Boy, toting his wet bathing suit and towel in a plastic bag.

Ready for dinner, Olivia brought me to Le Blue Whales, a recently renovated diner.  She explained that even though I was in France, I had to  try one of their burgers.  Though it is an American food, it was crafted by French hands, and that made a delicious difference.  It was easily one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, which I attribute to the house sauce.  It added a cool, flavorful compliment to the warm, juicy meat.  If any visitor of Nice is wary of spending a meal eating American food, burgers at Le Blue Whales is worth it!

The walk across town helped to digest our meals as we prepared to end our night with one last excursion.  Olivia told me that the Ferris Wheel in Place Masséna had been set up in the fall, but is not erected year-round.  Closing down Nice’s Carnival festivities, the ride was set to be removed the day of my departure.  I convinced my friend to take the Ferris Wheel up for nighttime views of the city.  Though distracted by the incessant, Nicoise wind (Olivia explained it is caused by the meeting of ocean and mountain air) and the teetering of our little gondola, we enjoyed yet another perspective of Nice.

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Day 3 – Èze

The town of Èze was on our agenda for Sunday morning.  On the same bus route to Monaco, just a closer stop, Èze is a mountain village located on the Mediterranean coast. Once we arrived, we quickly set off and began climbing through steep, narrow streets and tiny shops and restaurants to arrive at the top of Èze’s most accessible seaside cliff.  To experience the best views, we paid 4€ (2,50€ with my ISIC) to enter the exotic Jardin d’Èze.  Guiding you up the steps to the top of the cliff were cacti and other succulents of many different kinds.  Earth goddesses were also scattered among the plants, accompanied by prose of womanhood, love, and life.  The views of the French Riviera from Èze were even more brilliant than those from the night before.

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Goddess Isabeau: “Le sol me retient/ Et alors?/ J’ai la tête au ciel.

Though the ground keeps me rooted, my mind is in the heavens.

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Wanting to be well fed before my journey back to Madrid, Olivia and I got brunch at Café de la Place.  I desperately wanted a good, French, quiche lorraine, one of my favorite dishes, but the Quiche of the Day was ham, and I have had quite enough jamón in Spain!  I opted instead for the mini-brunch for 15€, where I chose three dishes from a list of about 10 breakfast staples.  Of my trifecta of choices, my least favorite were the pancakes, which were slightly undercooked.  My fruit salad was tiny, but refreshing, and lightened the rest of my meal.  The “egg muffin,” or breakfast sandwich, was fantastic, competing with Le Claire Fontaine’s pizza and Le Blue Whales’ burger for best fare of the trip.  Where I got fruit salad, Olivia got French toast, which I was curious to taste because of its name. The dish served at this restaurant was very eggy, and consequently soggy, leading me to favor American French toast.  We finished our little late-morning meals, leaving just enough room for one more treat.

I could not leave France without a crêpe!  Olivia recommended the restaurant Lovebio, the best crêpes that she’s had in Nice.  I was surprised at the choice because of the limited menu options and high prices, but nonetheless, I got a Nutella crêpe with whipped cream.  As it had seemed, the crêpe was not as tasty as I’d hoped.  In fact, I liked my crêpe from Madrid better than the French one.  I wonder if I do not appreciate the form and simplicity of a true French dessert, or if I just had a crappy crêpe.  Future French travels will tell.

Crêpes aside, I hope that further exploration into France reveals a stronger sense of French identity (because if I know anything about the French, I know that their ego exists, loud and proud).  During my visit, I was unable to recognize the Nicoise as people of France.  Though my judgements could be inaccurate due to the short length of my stay, it seemed as though there were too many tourists for Nice to retain its French character.  My expectations for French immersion may have been misplaced on this Mediterranean town.  As much as I appreciate the diversity of cultural influence in Nice, it wasn’t the France that I was looking for.

Visiting Nice, no matter what your motive, is like going on vacation.  With wide streets for strolling, where people feel the mountain/ocean breeze reach their senses, while greenery soaks up the Mediterranean sun, the city demands to be enjoyed.  Though I wasn’t there long, Nice affected me, as all seaside destinations do.  The beach-town vibes gave me joy in a way that city sensations simply can’t.  Yet as much as I felt at home in this French town, after the constant activity of metropolitan Madrid, I am unsure if I would like to study in Nice for an entire semester.  Forgetting future decisions, Nice is a beautiful city, with great food, great views, and a great summertime feel (even though I went in March).  Overall, my first trip to France was a success.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Nice

A.J.H.